If there is a better political orator alive than Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, I do not know who he might be.
Gov. Cuomo was at his fiery best in his speech to the Democratic National Convention placing Gov. Bill Clinton's name in nomination. Whatever your view of the New Yorker's political philosophy, it is difficult not to admire his passion and style.
I was nearly mesmerized, but he suddenly left me cold with his attempt to lay the blame for the savings and loan crisis on George Bush and conservative Republican bankers. The attack may have been terrific political oratory, but it could not have been more intellectually dishonest.
A Sad Story
Gov. Cuomo began his attack by recalling that a few years ago the nation's governors and mayors went to Washington to plead for funds for education, roads, and other programs, only to be rejected for lack of money.
"Then," Gov. Cuomo continued," "Americans discovered that wealthy bankers - educated in the most exquisite forms of conservative, Republican banking - through their incompetence, thievery, and the government's neglect had stolen or squandered everything in sight.
"The heavens opened, and out of the blue, billions of dollars appeared. Not for children. Not for jobs. Not for the ill. But hundreds of billions of dollars to bail out failed savings and loans."
I understand from press accounts that Charles H. Keating Jr. considered himself a conservative Republican, though one would be hard pressed to prove it from the list of recipients of his political largesse. Sen. Alan Cranston of California, for example, hardly fits the profile of a senator whom conservative Republicans would love to love.
I have not the slightest idea about the nominal political affiliations of the other high rollers in the S&L debacle, but I do know that a former speaker of the House, a former majority whip, and a former chairman of the House Banking Committee, all Democrats, were among the chief beneficiaries of their attentions.
Not one of the S&L high rollers could remotely be thought to have been "educated in the most exquisite forms of conservative, Republican banking," or any other commonly accepted form of banking.
Moreover, the heavens did not open to produce "billions of dollars to bail out failed savings and loans." We borrowed billions of dollars from our children and grandchildren to bail out millions of depositors at failed S&Ls.
Those borrowings, and the resultant backlash against all banks and thrifts by Congress and the regulators, are playing major role in our nation's current economic malaise.
There are plenty of culprits in the S&L debacle, and Gov. Cuomo did not need to look beyond the convention hall to find a good number of them. Indeed, in view of the massive problems that have plagued New York thrifts for more than a decade, he did not need to look beyond the nearest mirror.
The problems in America's financial system are the product of nearly three decades of neglect and special-interest politics by our elected representives. Major reform initiatives proposed by the Nixon and Carter administrators could have averted the S&L catastrophe but were ignored by Congress.
Not until the crisis developed in the early 1980s did Congress finally consent to a partial reform. But it was much too little, much too late. As it more than amply demonstrated as recently as last year, Congress still has not the slightest inclination to do what is right for America's depository institutions.
I can find plenty to criticize in the Reagan administration's handling of the S&L crisis. Its misguided regulatory policies greatly exacerbated the situation. But make no mistake: By then the horse was already out of the barn and running wild.
Bush Can Be Proud
Ironically, one politician who stands tall in this sorry episode is George Bush. He was chairman of a task force on financial reform in 1984. It made recommendations that would have| gone a long way toward containing the S&L crisis.
Among the recommendations were reforms to strengthen supervision and curtail abuses of the deposit insurance system.
Upon his election as President, Mr. Bush's first major initiative was to introduce and gain enactment of legislation that finally brought the S&L crisis under control. His appointments of dedicated professionals like Tim Ryan at the Office of Thrift Supervision and Bill Taylor at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. have emphasized his seriousness of purpose.
A number of areas may exist in which Mr. Bush's track record is open to challenge, but his handling of the S&L crisis is not one.